N.M. Kelby writes this imagined love story with words so delicious it makes your mouth water. She relates the love of Auguste Escoffier for his wife, Delphine Daffis, in such a tender way that you can almost believe that he loved her as much as he loved cooking. But not quite. Kelby also discusses Escoffier’s relationship with Sarah Bernhardt, the beautiful actress, in a similar way. Escoffier’s love for Sarah was different, but also readily apparent. Sabine, a young girl who assisted Escoffier when he retired and returned to Delphine, seems to represent all the characters rolled into one.
Escoffier was French. He was certainly totally absorbed with food his entire life. Yet he often failed to eat. Strange? As are the characters who were real people, lived real lives, and left legacies of their own. Escoffier changed cooking and cooks from a pleasant pastime to a profession—chefs today owe him a great deal, but many may not realize it.
Delphine Daffis married Escoffier when she was very young, innocent, and reluctant. And yet, she had five children with him even though he was gone for months and years at a time. She refused to live in London and lived most of her life in Monaco, and was as liberated as a woman could be when she has a family to raise and raise alone. Her feelings for Escoffier and her knowledge of his love affair with the Divine Sarah are made fairly clear. Yet she is not portrayed as a nag, or a shrew, nor is she portrayed as a possessive woman. She was a poet, yet not much is made of that fact and little evidence appears in the novel. Kelby carefully portrays the passion of this woman for her husband. It must have run deep, as was the love Escoffier had for his wife.
Sabine does her best in taking care of aging Escoffier and Delphine. She is introduced in the first chapter as Escoffier is trying to teach her how to prepare food. In his mind, he is not only teaching her how to cook, but also how to live. That is where he finds his meaning in life, and that is what he conveys to his wife, to Sarah, and to Sabine. As well as to everyone else he comes into contact with—other cooks, and many women. Sabine does all she can for the man and for Delphine who becomes more and more bed-ridden. Escoffier makes sure that Sabine meets and learns to love a man and learns to enjoy preparing food for those she loves. But she is, at best, a reluctant student with a mind of her own.
White Truffles in Winter does not progress in a linear fashion, and it is not an easy read. It is a lush experience, however, far from my usual fare. Having taught high school English (way too many years ago), I read for escape, for entertainment, for enlightenment, and also with reluctance, for education. This novel was quite close to education. The use of language was just marvelous; the use of French became tiresome but necessary, and the descriptions of food a little tedious. Still, this was a not to be missed tale of people who were not entirely likable all too human, and sadly not all that fulfilled in their own lives. They each made their choices and lived with the consequences. Their ethics, especially Escoffier’s in business, were not the highest. Their passion for life was to be envied.
There is some of the history of the time; World War I and its horrors are expressed in Escoffier’s experience with horses. Escoffier not only meets famous people, (Kaiser Wilhelm, the Prince of Wales) but they are in awe of his abilities in the kitchen and his ability to create ingenious menus. His affect in the world of cuisine is felt today. Much of the foods (especially meats) the Victorians ate simply are not eaten today. Swan, geese, game, and in one case ortolan. Frankly the description of this menu item was absolutely gross. Look it up, and look up the way it was eaten. I cannot imagine having a white linen cloth put over my head and then eating a tiny bird, bones and all. Yuk.
If you are at all interested in food and its preparation, and the history of so many changes, this is one for you. No mystery, little sex, no violence (except war without battle descriptions), and a lot of food. Although masterfully researched, there are one too many menus and some are of less interest today. Sorry Escoffier, and Julia, French cuisine is over-loaded with sauces and not all that healthy, and somehow it offends my American sense of peasantry to bow to the French.
Mary Lu is the author of Passports to Change Revisited 2012, now on Kindle. She lives in Newnan, Georgia and does research and customer service at an independent bookstore in Peachtree City. She is the author of another two novels which will soon be available on Kindle.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W.W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.